The job of looking for Ike victims in the debris piles and swamps of Galveston County -- a nasty, brutal job that drained the searchers both physically and emotionally -- is over.
The county's second and final search for missing Ike victims ended recently with eight people from the Bolivar area still missing. Some of them are more than likely among the five badly decomposed, still-unidentified bodies in the Galveston County morgue, Colin Rizzo, Human Remains Search Coordinator for the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management, tells Hair Balls.
The decision to end the search for bodies came after all possible locations for the missing persons had been exhausted, Rizzo says. The second mission to search for Ike victims lasted from Dec. 2nd to Jan. 30th. Only one victim was recovered.
Rizzo coordinated the search with J.R. Santana, president of Santana Funeral Directors of Baytown. Teams of around 30 people worked 360 man-hours a day, seven days a week, for 60 days, covering over a thousand acres on Bolivar Peninsula and Goat Island, Santana tells Hair Balls.
The people who were not found are going to be in Chambers County, he says. Chambers County has only searched approximately 60% of the 30 miles of debris swept there from Bolivar. "No other bodies will be found where we have searched," Santana said.
They brought in dog teams from all over the country. The teams, he said, consisted of highly motivated individuals and only FEMA-certified dogs, which he found to be very reliable.
With the missing persons list down to nine on Bolivar Peninsula, Rizzo said, the teams conducted a focused, methodical sweep. They followed up investigations into the last known location of specific victims, tracked down their vehicles, and reviewed "hot spots" tagged by local K9 teams in the previous search. However, all of these hot spots turned out to be either dead animals or rotten fruit, he said. They searched areas containing over a hundred acres of open field based on leads to a single missing person.
"It is tough," Rizzo said. "Being out there every day searching hundreds of acres for people, who might not even be there, is challenging both physically and mentally."
"There were places people were missing from, that there was nothing left of the neighborhood," Santana said.
Goat Island had been virtually untouched during the first search. Since the water is so shallow, Santana said, they had to use air boats to ferry teams off and on the island. To get through the heavy mud and thick swampy terrain, they had to use specialized swamp equipment. They had to worry about snakes, razorbacked hogs and alligators, he said, "and even worse, the idiots out there shooting at [the animals] with high-powered rifles." Teams often ran into looters, or people just out there to "check things out."
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Debris piled two stories high littered the island. When dogs picked up a scent, they would clear out areas of debris with heavy equipment. They found only one victim.
The rest, both Rizzo and Santana are confident, are among the five unidentified bodies in the morgue or in Chamber County. Galveston County medical examiner's chief investigator John Florence told the Houston Chronicle that officials are doing everything they can to identify the bodies.
Santana hopes Chambers County gets the resources together for a proper search so that families missing relatives may get closure. It troubles him, he said, that nothing has been organized after five months. Some of the debris fields, he said, have caught fire, accidentally or otherwise, that may not have been searched.
-- Thomas Rundle